If you're plagued by sinus headaches, you might consider turning to caffeine for relief. People often find that consuming caffeine offers the relief they so long for. It constricts painfully enlarged blood vessels, says the National Headache Foundation.
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However, trying to treat sinus headaches with just caffeine is generally considered a bad idea. Not only would this not address the cause of your sinus pain, it can be a headache trigger, says Mayo Clinic. And it could bring on a whole new type of headache pain sparked by caffeine withdrawal, explains the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
What Is a Sinus Headache?
What's commonly called a sinus headache is actually facial pain that stems from an infection or inflammation that has developed in your sinuses, the air-filled cavities in your face—in your forehead, cheeks and behind your nose, says the Cleveland Clinic. The pain resembles headache pain.
Many people who think they have sinus headaches actually have migraine headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation.
"Migraine headaches are often confused with sinus headaches because migraines cause pain in sinus areas and nasal congestion," says Zubair Ahmed, MD, a neurologist and headache specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Neuro-Restoration. However, he says, "sinus headaches don't come and go like migraines." And with sinus headaches, "you need to treat the infection to get rid of the headache," Dr. Ahmed explains.
A sinus infection could be thought of as a cold that won't go away, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. The sinus passages can become infected and swell due to bacteria, viruses or even fungi (mold), says the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). This traps mucus inside the sinuses and creates the pain and pressure of a sinus headache.
The other symptoms that accompany the infection—nasal congestion, loss of smell and cheek or teeth pain—are key to distinguishing a sinus headache from any other type of headache, Mayo Clinic explains. If you have a headache that's caused by a sinus infection, you may have a fever, says the Cleveland Clinic.
Treatment of a sinus infection headache depends on the cause and how long the infection has persisted. Decongestants and antihistamines may provide symptom relief, while over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, like aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen Advil or Motrin), may be recommended for headache relief, says Cleveland Clinic. For infections caused by bacteria, you may need an antibiotic. Nasal sprays can be used to clear thickened secretions, says ACAAI.
Read more: Can Sugar Cause Headaches?
Coffee and Headaches
Research on caffeine for pain management, published in the journal Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine in June 2016, notes that caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. It increases the pain-relieving properties of OTC drugs like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. It also increases energy, alertness, focus and concentration.
An average cup of coffee will give you 125 to 250 milligrams of caffeine, according the American Migraine Foundation—enough to give you all the benefits caffeine has to offer. "That is why so many over-the-counter headache medicines include caffeine," says Dr. Ahmed. "However, caffeine can also cause its own type of headache, called a caffeine withdrawal headache."
Read more: Signs and Symptoms of Caffeine Intolerance
Avoid Caffeine Withdrawal Headache
When you drink coffee three days a week or more, your brain can start to depend on caffeine, the foundation notes. Caffeine blocks a substance in your brain—adenosine—that causes blood vessels to swell, called vasodilation. Swollen blood vessels in your head cause throbbing pain. If you suddenly stop drinking coffee, you may have a rebound headache sometimes referred to as a caffeine withdrawal headache.
The American Migraine Foundation warns against using caffeine to treat a headache on more than two days a week. If you need a cup of coffee to treat a headache more than that, you should talk to your doctor. (Be aware that caffeine can actually trigger a migraine headache in some people, it adds. Caffeine is on a list of substances that people should avoid if they get migraines, including alcohol, artificial sweeteners and MSG.)
And if you have a sinus headache, know that caffeine is only a temporary solution. The way to stop the headache is to treat the sinus infection or inflammation. Untreated, it can become a long-term problem—something no amount of coffee will help.
- National Headache Foundation: "The Complete Headache Chart"
- American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery: "Sinusitis"
- American Migraine Foundation: "Caffeine and Migraine."
- Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine: "The Role of Caffeine in Pain management: A Brief Literature Review."
- National Headache Foundation: "Does Caffeine Trigger or Treat Headaches?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Sinus Headaches"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine/StatPearls: "Caffeine, Withdrawal"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Sinus Headaches"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.